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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Where (on the boat) am I? An introduction to shipboard life...

One of the most important narratives on any shipboard type (e.g. surface ship, submersible, or even airship), is the organization onboard said vessel.  Interesting enough, this is perhaps one of the most important parts of a ship, but one of the least understood by those without a Naval background.

Its likely that the most exposure that those in the Steampunk (and Science Fiction) realms have to any kind of shipboard organization (also known in military circles as the “Chain of Command”) is via the Star Trek series.  The officers, who generally comprise the main characters, are easily identified on this series, albeit with a few modifications as compared to current day crews (aka, there is no such thing as a “councilor” of any sort!  Back in the day, the Navy wasn’t “touchy-feely” as it is now, but that is a different topic entirely!)  Still, the overall basics of the chain of command can be easily reflected by a brief overview of some of the more frequented compartments of a submersible.

(It always helps to do a bit of research on a topic... and it would be the Officer of the Deck instructing the Diving Officer to conduct a dive, btw).

I’ll simply touch on a few highlights regarding shipboard design and organization.  Most of the specific details of shipboard life would be academic for translation to a Steampunk setting (aka – explaining how shifts rotate onboard would probably be a relatively boring topic to the average reader, though of immense importance on a real ship), but there are some basic narratives that are essential for being on a boat.

The control room of the USS Becuna (SS-319), in a "rigged for red" lighting arrangement, commonly used for "Battle Stations".  Its very cramped, and in RL, very crowded.  

The Bridge
The “Control Center” of the ship (and better known as “Control”) – the location where the ship is controlled, is historically most of the “action” onboard takes place.  This location in itself merits its own entry, which I will follow up with in time  – but for now, suffice to say, the Bridge (or known more commonly as “Control” on the subs), is where the major decisions take place.  Usually on US subs, there will be an officer in charge (aka, “Officer of the Deck”), a senior ranking individual responsible for submerging operations (aka, the “Diving Officer”), a senior enlisted individual manning a control panel responsible for a vast quantity of ship systems (the “Chief of the Watch”), two junior enlisted personnel “driving” the ship (one helmsman, one planesman), and a rotating number of radiomen (for communications), quartermasters & electronics technicians (for navigation duties).  This is the proverbial “tip of the iceberg”, as every watch on the ship interacts with Control in one way or another.

Steampunk note – A good amount of interaction onboard a submersible will include the control room.  This would include where the Captain (or in his absence, the Officer of the Deck) would take charge of directing the ship.  Major decisions would require the Captain’s presence, though other individuals may or may not be present for ship’s operations.
There are many variations on how a Steampunk control room might appear, but I’d say that the biggest issue would be the number of personnel in the room.  In Hollywood productions, there are at most a handful (four to six) people in the control room.  In real life, its not uncommon to have at least ten people during regular operations, and the number can double, depending on circumstances.   Again, I’ll touch on that in a later entry.

Maneuvering / Engineering Spaces
The second most important location on the submersible (arguably if you speak with the engineering individuals), this location is where commands from control are received for the propulsion of the ship, and from there are acted upon.  The most common image of this (and I’ll be making these references as they are likely the most visible comparison that non-seagoing individuals might have) is in Star Trek, when the Captain implores Engineering to magically fix things in an emergency or somehow “provide more power” to the ship.  In real life, the engineering individuals are exceptionally bright sailors, and enjoy the extra training their field provides them – though they don’t always work miracles on a daily (or episodic) basis.

Steampunk note – Unless there is something which involves engineering spaces, it tends to be overlooked in general Steampunk narratives.  Aside from explaining propulsion systems (say, how “cavorite” works), involvement in some kind of shipboard operations, or someone being in this area without permission, this part of a ship likely to be minimal.

The Wardroom
The Wardroom is both a location and informal title for the officers aboard a ship.  The physical location relates to a space where the commissioned officers eat and study, and is usually considered to be “off-limits” to enlisted personnel, unless they have official business which needs to be addressed.  In reality, on a submersible, it is treated with more formality than most other spaces, but it is still accessible to the crew (especially when the acquisition of good coffee is concerned).  Additionally, the Wardroom can also refer to the officers (excluding the Commanding Officer and Executive Officer), in a general sense.

Steampunk note – In a Steampunk narrative, just about anyone “involved” with a ship (sea, air, or land) seems to be a ship’s Captain (I have yet to encounter any Steampunk Executive Officers or Chiefs, in Real or Virtual Steampunk worlds).  Portraying an individual with a commission is likely a tad more complex than the general media portrays it, so to provide a baseline, I’ve included a few general links on Wardrooms for your review…

This is where officers sleep and generally do (paper) work, two to a room (unless they are Junior officers, in which they may be set three to a room).  Some senior officers may have their own office somewhere else on a ship, but generally speaking, if they have business to attend to (e.g. copious amounts of paperwork), they’ll do it in the part of a stateroom.

Steampunk note – Fictional staterooms tend to be much more spacious than their real counterparts, which may be no larger than a typical bathroom (a small bathroom at that).  In 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Captain Nemo had a sparse stateroom, so the choice would depend on the Steampunk narrative in question on the size and appearance of the officer-in-question’s stateroom.

The Goat Locker
The “Goat Locker” is the informal name (in the US Navy) for the senior enlisted personnel, the Chiefs, which range in rank from E-7 to E-9.  Though they live in bunk-room like setting as do the rest of the enlisted crew, they are is separated from the rest of the enlisted personnel (E-1 to E-6).  With their own head (bathroom) and meeting area, they attend to various middle managerial issues in this location.

Steampunk note - As with most fiction, enlisted personnel seem to be a somewhat overlooked necessity, with the bulk of interaction of with enlisted personnel taking place with the Chiefs, who then address any tasks to his department or division (e.g. the Navigator talking to the senior enlisted Quartermaster).  Again, I wouldn’t think that this area would have much play in any Steampunk fictional work… heck, I have yet to see any kind of Goat Locker mentioned in any of the Star Trek series, so I’d find it hard to see any fictional narrative unless there was a very good reason.

Finally, berthing is where the bulk of the enlisted personnel reside.  Generally a darkened area with subdued lighting, it remains quiet, as the people in the bunkroom will have differing sleep schedules, depending on the watch they stand.  Bunkrooms can vary from being very clean to, well not so clean, but you’ll find most the crew there – watching movies, reading, listening to music… or sleeping.

Steampunk note – In a general narrative, no one really cares about a bunkroom, for enlisted personnel, since they aren’t main characters in a story!  Even in real life, its pretty boring – so unless someone is going to be woken up on watch, or something lost in going to be found, the berthing areas are yet another location which would be a non-issue in a Steampunk setting

Well, that’s it for now… I have enough for a second entry on this (which I’ll post later on), but I hope this is a small glimpse into how life on a submarine works… and how it might translate to a Steampunk narrative!

1 comment:

  1. There do seem to be an untoward number of Captains in Steampunk literature. The Michael Moorcock trilogy, in particular, seemed filled with high ranks.

    Exceptions to the rule include the YA novel Leviathan (in which one of the young protagonists disguises herself as a boy in order to enter the Navy (one might find that even more unrealistic than the surplus of Captains or the spacious quarters, as I'd imagine the girl parts would be discovered in fairly short order)) and, to a lesser extent, the Steampunk romance Steamed (in which the protagonist is a female Captain, but her officers play important roles).